For millions of Americans caught in the digital divide, the overnight shift to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic has presented an enormous challenge.
According to a recent analysis of U.S. census data by The Associated Press, an estimated 17% of U.S. students don’t have access to computers at home, and 18% don’t have a broadband internet connection.
This is often called the homework gap, which refers to students who lack internet access to complete school assignments at home. But as one report on the issue puts it, “The homework gap isn’t just about homework anymore.” More than 50 million public school students were learning remotely last year, and it will likely be a fixture in some form going forward.
Who is affected by the digital divide and how to help
While nearly every aspect of education today relies on internet access in some way, the digital divide affects everyone uniquely. This section will go over the needs of different groups, from younger students to libraries, as well as the organizations that are helping them.
Few groups are as impacted by the digital divide as students between kindergarten and 12th grade. According to the Pew Research Center, roughly 6-in-10 students use the internet at their home to do homework every day or almost every day.
Unfortunately, about 15% of U.S. households with school-age children lack a high-speed internet connection, which puts them at a severe disadvantage when it comes to learning. Of course, this has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to a June 2020 report from Common Sense Media and the Boston Consulting Group, more than 50 million public school students were learning remotely last year, but nine million of them didn’t have the necessary device or internet connection.
The following groups are currently focused on connecting these K-12 students. You can click on the links to jump down on the page for more information:
- Internet provider discounts: Altice Advantage, Cox Connect2Compete, Mediacom and WOW! all offer discounts for families with a K-12 student who received reduced price lunches or participate in a government assistance program like SNAP.
- Affordable Connectivity Program: Anyone with an income that is 200% or less than the federal poverty guidelines can get $30 off home internet each month.
- Lifeline: Households that have an annual income at or below 135% of federal poverty guidelines can use the Lifeline program to get $9.95 off their monthly internet bill.
- The ON IT Foundation: Low-income households with K-12 students can apply through this nonprofit for computers and internet access by writing to the organization directly.
While most of the spotlight from the homework gap is on K-12 students, it also has a major impact on students pursuing college degrees. In a report from the Midwestern Higher Education Compact, researchers found that nearly 1 in 5 college students reported technology barriers impacted their participation in online learning. Like most digital divide trends, Black and Hispanic students were disproportionately affected.
Fortunately, there are several great resources available to help keep college students connected. You can click the links below to learn more about each option:
- Emergency Broadband Benefit: Anyone who qualifies for Lifeline or received a Federal Pell Grant during the current year can get $50 off home internet each month.
- Lifeline: College students whose annual income is at 135% of federal poverty guidelines or below ($12,880 for one person) can use the Lifeline program to get $9.95 off their monthly internet bill.
- Xfinity internet: Xfinity offers varying discounts for college students living in their service areas.
Teachers and school administrators
Like students, many teachers are also affected by the homework gap. According to the report from Common Sense Media and the Boston Consulting Group, about 10% of public school teachers — 300K to 400K people — lack adequate internet connectivity to conduct remote learning classes. Here are some resources teachers and administrators can use to keep themselves and their students connected for remote learning:
- Optimum: The only nationwide internet provider to offer a discount for teachers, Optimum provides 60 days of high-speed internet free, then just $14.99/mo. after that.
- Project 10Million: This initiative launched by T-Mobile works with school administrators to provide free high-speed data, mobile hotspots and equipment to students participating in the National School Lunch Program
- Computers for Learning: A federal program that lets teachers and school administrators request refurbished government computer equipment.
For many students without an adequate internet connection, public libraries are often one of the best ways to get online. Often called “anchor institutions” by advocates, libraries serve as gateways to the internet in communities with lower connectivity rates — a function that only got more crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to a survey from the Public Library Association, a majority of libraries in the U.S. left Wi-Fi on even when the building was closed, and many began placing Wi-Fi access points outside the building and letting patrons check out hotspots.
The FCC recently made more than $7 billion in funds available to schools and libraries through its Emergency Connectivity Fund, which allows them to purchase computer equipment and internet services for students, teachers and library patrons who lack internet access and connected devices. In addition to this, there are several nonprofits and organizations that address the needs of public libraries:
- Computers for Learning: A federal program that lets public libraries request refurbished government computer equipment.
- The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA): The NDIA is a coalition of nonprofits and government bodies working to address the digital divide.
Internet providers helping to bridge the gap
Altice Advantage Internet
This discount is available to anyone in a Suddenlink or Optimum service area who has a child in grades K-12 and participates in the National School Lunch Program. It costs $14.99/mo. and gets you 30 Mbps download speeds, free equipment, unlimited data and discounted installation.Learn more about Altice Advantage Internet
Cox Communications is the third-largest cable provider in the U.S. and has the most generous discounts for students of any provider. Through its Connect2Compete program, Cox offers 50 Mbps of download speed for just $9.95/mo. To qualify, your household must have at least one K-12 student and participate in a government program like SNAP, the National School Lunch Program or rental assistance.Learn more about Cox’s Connect2Compete discount
Like Cox, Mediacom also participates in the Connect2Compete program, but its speeds aren’t quite as generous. You’ll get 25 Mbps of download speeds — the bare minimum to meet the FCC’s definition of broadband — for just $9.95/mo. Only households who have at least one K-12 student and participate in a free or reduced-price school lunch through the National School Lunch Program can get the discounted rate.Learn more about Mediacom’s Connect2Compete discount
Optimum is one of the few internet providers that offers discounts for teachers. Any active and licensed teacher, professor, faculty, instructor or staff member of a U.S. K-12 school, college or university can get 60 days of entirely free 30 Mbps internet. After 60 days, they’ll be charged a discounted rate of $14.99/mo.Learn more about Optimum’s educator discount
Project 10Million from T-Mobile
Created by T-Mobile to address the connectivity challenge for students during the COVID-19 pandemic, Project 10Million works with school administrators to provide free high-speed data, mobile hotspots and equipment to students participating in the National School Lunch Program. While students can’t apply themselves, school districts can enroll on behalf of their students.Learn more about Project 10Million
Like Optimum, Verizon Fios also offers discounts to active K-12 teachers. The amount of your Verizon teacher discount depends on which Fios plan you choose. Here’s what you can get:
- $5 off per month on 200 Mbps or less plans
- $10 off per month on either 300 Mbps or 400 Mbps plans
- $15 off per month on either 500 Mbps or Gigabit connection plans
With service limited to the Midwest and southern U.S., WOW! isn’t as large as the other providers we’ve listed, but it does offer some great discounts for students. For just $9.99/mo., you’ll get 50 Mbps of download speeds through WOW! — one of the most generous deals we’ve come across. Like the other discounts listed, you must have a K-12 student participating in the National School Lunch Program to qualify.Learn more about WOW!’s student discount
If you’re a full or part time college student living in an area serviced by Xfinity, you can get discounted internet for as low as $9.95/mo. Xfinity student deals also include a $100 prepaid Visa card and six months of Amazon Music Unlimited for free.Learn more about Xfinity’s college discounts
Other low-income internet discounts
While these programs aren’t targeted towards students or teachers specifically, they offer significantly discounted internet to low-income households across the country. In most cases, you’ll need to qualify for a program like SNAP or reduced lunches to take advantage of them.
- Access from AT&T: If you participate in a government program like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or National School Lunch and Head Start Programs, or make 135% or less of federal poverty guidelines, you can sign up for AT&T’s reduced-price internet plan. It costs just $10/mo., and you’ll get speeds up to 25 Mbps.
- Affordable Connectivity Program: Launched in January 2022, the Affordable Connectivity was created by the FCC to keep Americans connected. It provides $30/mo. to eligible households towards their internet bill, plus $100 off a laptop or computer when purchased through an internet provider.
- Lifeline: This program also provides a discount on your monthly internet bill, but it’s significantly smaller than the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) — just $9.95/mo. for most households. But unlike the EBB, you have the option to use it on a cellphone bill instead of home internet.
Nonprofits and organizations addressing the homework gap
In addition to the resources from the federal government and internet service providers themselves, a number of nonprofit organizations are also working to close the digital divide for students.
PCs for People
PCs for People addresses the digital divide on two fronts: the equipment needed to connect to the internet and the broadband connections themselves. The organization refurbishes old computers that have been donated and distributes them to individuals and organizations. It also uses wireless hotspots to connect people for just $15/mo.
While many nonprofits focus on supplying students the equipment they need to get online, EveryoneOn addresses internet access itself. Its flagship program is called Connect2Compete, and it partners with nationwide broadband providers like Cox and Mediacom to deliver high-speed internet at reduced prices for low-income households.
The National Digital Inclusion Alliance
The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) is one of the most well-known organizations working to expand internet connectivity in the U.S. today. It acts as a central hub for internet nonprofits, technology training and advocacy. If you’re new to the issue and want to find the resources available to you — or just want to get involved by volunteering or donating — this is a great first step.
In an effort to address every aspect of the digital divide, human-I-T provides people with both equipment and internet connections. Their team of staff and volunteers repairs donated devices and gives them to people in need. In addition to this recycling program, human-I-T also assists people looking for affordable internet options in their area.
Computers with Causes
The name says it all with Computer with Causes. The nonprofit organization receives computer donations from individuals and corporations throughout the U.S. and builds computer labs in low-income communities. You can get involved by donating computers in all 50 states.
The ON IT Foundation
Short for Opportunities Necessary to Increase Technology, the ON IT Foundation focuses specifically on closing the homework gap. The nonprofit provides free computers, computer training and broadband internet connections to low-income families with students in grades K-12 that receive a free or reduced school lunch and attend a public school.
Computers for Learning
Computers for Learning is a government program run by the General Services Administration recycles old government computers and donates them to schools and nonprofits around the country. You can apply for equipment like desktops, keyboards and monitors by registering your organization on the Computers for Learning website.
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Written by:Joe Supan
Principal Writer, Broadband Content
Joe is a senior writer for CNET covering home technology and broadband. Prior to joining CNET, Joe led MYMOVE’s moving coverage and reported on broadband policy, the digital divide, and privacy issues for the br… Read more
Edited by:Robin Layton
Editor, Broadband Content
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